Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Saturday December 31 2005

What I have in mind is that when you buy little things like coffee or milk or tube tickets, you are actually buying something very big, namely the habit of regularly using this coffee, that supermarket for milk, and the regular practise of using the tube (underground for all you sad people who don’t live in London) rather than taxis, buses, a car, walking, or staying put and making greater use of electronic communication to get things done such as buying and selling things on the internet, which is another habit.  A lot of false analysis arises from not getting this distinction between a single purchasing decision and a habit.

For instance, my ruminations on the matter of intellectual property have got me thinking about the downloading, both illegally and legally, of music from the internet.  I currently do neither.  I have the CD habit.  My sense – but it is only a sense – is that, for me, all the music I want, conveniently, not too expensively, in nice sound, is available if I carry on with CDs, that is, with my CD purchasing habit.  I haven’t explored the alternatives “rationally”, because I am too busy exploring other things rationally, such as the influence of the military history of the last two centuries on the course of libertarian movement, concerning which I am to give a talk on Friday January 6th.  So, I reflect rationally on the course of history and of libertarianism, and I continue, maybe irrationally, to buy classical CDs for what seem like bargain prices to me, but which may well be an unnecessary fortune.

Besides which, I like CDs.  My CD collection, which dominates my kitchen and has also now spread into my bedroom, is a talking point among visitors to my home.  I like the shiny cases and the sweet little leaflets that the shiny cases protect from harm.  I like the discs themselves.  I like that when my computer is out of action, I can still listen to CDs on my separate and uncomputerised CD player.  I loved CDs for rescuing me from the horrors of vinyl and of tape, and I feel a loyalty towards them.  If I deserted them now, just because they aren’t so fashionable any more, what kind of person would that make me?  What kind of statement would I be making about myself?

If, on the other hand, I were to explore the wild and wonderful world of classical music downloading, I would be exploring it because I was thinking of making a fundamental shift in my life from one way of obtaining music to another.  But why would I want to do that?  My next contemplated CD purchase is, probably, Scott Ross’s complete set of the Scarlatti keyboard sonatas.  At no point will I sit down and consider whether I could get them more cheaply and conveniently – actually it would probably be more cheaply but less conveniently – by downloading them in some way (legally) or another (illegally?).  Provided the CD method gets me those sonatas at a reasonable price there is, as far as I am concerned, nothing to decide about.  34 discs for £50 in HMV Oxford Street is, for me, very reasonable.  As I explain here, even copying is not worth the bother when you can get new CDs at prices like that.

I do not have a problem.  CDs work for me.  One of the basic rules of modern life, and especially of modern technological life, is: do not unleash a solution upon circumstances which are not a problem.  Only buy a solution when you really do have a problem.

For remember, competitive pressure will often solve the problem for you.  Millions of other people copying classical CDs, and thus millions more threatening credibly to do it too, is one of several reasons why the price of classical CDs for me is nosediving.  So I get the cheapness of copying, without actually having to copy.

Bog standard PC computer users, again like me, get the benefits of all the convenience and user-friendliness that Macs have scared the PC into doing, without us having to bother with Macs ourselves.

Ergo, Scott Ross’s Scarlatti on CDs it will probably be.  Or not.  Those are my actual choices.

I have, however, acquired the habit of purchasing CDs that come in little cardboard sleeves (like the old LP sleeves) rather than the shiny plastic cases I prefer.  Live dangerously, Brian!  The Scott Ross Scarlatti comes in cardboard cases, in a smallish cardboard box.  These cardboard cases are less appealing to me than the plastic cases, but they occupy far less space, especially for big box sets like this Scarlatti set, and space is becoming a bit of a problem.  Not, however, enough of a problem for me to want to explore a whole new way of getting music.  If space really does become a hideous difficulty, then by far the simplest answer would not be for me not to switch to downloading, but simply to stop buying new CDs and concentrate on listening to the ones I already have, and to find some other excuse for taking a decent walk every days or two.

So, going back to those arguments about illegal downloading, you sometimes read arguments about how this particular download is cheaper than purchasing that CD.  And you also read absurd claims from the record companies about how they are “losing billions” from illegal downloading.  The idea here is that if people paid the CD price for everything they now download illegally it would come to 79 thrillion quiddles per person per year, and that’s what these thieves are stealing.  Rubbish.  If they bought CDs they would actually spend whatever they spent on CDs last year, approximately, which was a mere 652 quiddles.  But the record companies are right that they are probably losing many of those 652 quiddles, and they are genuinely hurting.  For once one of their CD purchasers gets the downloading habit, then they are gone for ever.  The idea that they can get those CD buyers back again merely by slashing the price of CDs is like saying that, now that I can buy classical tape cassettes in charity shops for 50 pence a pop (which I can), I will now switch back to cassettes (in those cases where they are cheap enough), when in fact you couldn’t now pay me to listen to those bloody things.

Oddly enough, I may be about to acquire the downloading habit from, of all things, my own activity as a comedian.  As reported here when it had just happened, I am now an amateur comedian.  But my efforts in the pub that night were being recorded, and may well soon be available on the internet, for about 20p per sketch.  At that point, I would definitely consider becoming a legal downloader, with all the hazards and confusions involved in that.

Which brings me to the mechanism which matters so much in this habit thing, and which has always been understood as mattering by the people who matter, namely the “killer app”.  The very existence of this phrase illustrates how very well understood the phenomenon is.  Remember those accountants with their “spreadsheet” thingies, which would only run on a Mac computer, way back in the paleo-gothic age of computation.  That was the killer app that got the Mac going.  The accountants had to have their spreadsheets.  Only the Mac gave it to them.  Ergo, all the inconvenience and expense of buying a Mac had to be accepted and dealt with.

(And please, no comments about how damned convenient blah blah blah the Mac is.  All new arrangements without exception are an inconvenience, no matter how convenient they turn out to be once you have got used to them.  There are definitely inconveniences (expense?) associated with Mac ownership, or we would almost all of us have them by now.  As it is, almost all of us don’t.)

Anyway, those comedy sketches might become my downloading killer app.  Once I sort out the downloading of those few comedy sketches that I am in, I will be ready to start downloading other comedy sketches, that I am not in.  Next thing you know, I’ll be downloading other stuff, which is not comedic at all.  Then I’ll start exploring what else I might download.  Then I’ll get organised for downloading – by which I mean organised for the downlaoding habit - by, e.g., getting a 5,000 grogobite hard disc and a 10,000 grogobite hard disc to back up the 5,000 grogobite hard disc in case the 5,000 grogobite hard disc gets the measels..

At some point during all this palaver, I would start wondering whether it might make better sense to get my Scott Ross Scarlatti keyboard sonatas by downloading them, rather than by buying a box of CDs.  I might then decide that Scott Ross doing Scarlatti is not a rational download, but that there are so many other downloadable musical delights for me to wallow in that . . . who cares?  At which point the record companies will have lost me.  I will be listening to different stuff, by an entirely different method.  And all because of me liking the sound of my own voice.

I mentioned milk in the first sentence of this posting, and it so happens that milk is, for me, a splendid example of a killer food app, so to speak.

I must have milk, for coffee in the morning.  Must.  And my local Tesco does the best milk, by which I mean it most often has the milk I want, and it least often (i.e. never so far as I can recall) sells me milk that turns sour a day later.  Sour milk in the morning coffee is not good, and avoiding it is, for me, a necessity.  So, despite the fact that in many other ways I prefer my local Sainsbury’s to my local Tesco, I regularly visit my local Tesco.  Sainsbury’s, I am mortified to report, sometimes sells me milk that goes off after a day or two.  So, I get all my milk at Tesco, unless Tesco is shut or has completely run out.  That being the case, I also purchase lots of other stuff in Tesco, stuff which is not that good, but which is good enough.  (Best to make the most of all that queueing once you have decided that you want something.) Tesco thus gets hundreds of quiddles worth of extra business from me, entirely because of their milk.  I have, that is to say, the Tesco habit.  (This suggests to me that it might well be worth Tesco’s while to have a policy of always having fresh milk abundantly available, and damn the expense.)

Okay that’s enough for now.  I am amazed that you read all that.  Have a happy new year.  From where I sit, you deserve it, and whether you do or not, have it anyway.

By the way, I do believe in New Year Resolutions.  This is a habit that I recommend, and all of my most successful ones have themselves been about acquiring habits.  This year, my New Year Resolution (and I have found that they work best if I think about them beforehand during November and December and then prioritise ruthlessly come the actual night) will be about this.

If that works my blog productivity will go up during 2006.  But, I promise nothing.  (Saying that is another verbal habit I have learned the hard way that I need constantly to practise, whenever I speculate about future good deeds that I am not actually, definitely promising.)

Friday December 30 2005

Very sexy photo I think, courtesy of Flickrzen, which I like to go to every once in a while.

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It’s the nipple on the mountain that clinches it.  Is there a single word meaning “visual innuendo”.  I see more and more here, the more I look.

I have fallen into the agreeable habit over Christmas of overdosing, so to speak, on some particular sort of classical music.  I vividly remember the Barenboim Beethoven Piano Sonatas Christmas, my first with a CD player.

I don’t decide about these musical binges.  Something triggers them, and they happen.  I find myself listening to a Mahler symphony, say, or a Mozart piano concerto, and then to another, and another, and the pattern is set, without me ever having decided in one go.

But why the concentration on one type of music.  Why not mere fun?  Why not variety?  Well, Christmas is the perfect time for me actually to listen to all my CDs, as opposed to wandering about London buying more of the things. Buying CDs, mostly for bargain basement prices, is a quite distinct pleasure to listening to them, I find, just as I imagine buying shoes to be a quite distinct pleasure for my lady friends to the mere wearing of shoes.  But at Christmas, many regular purchasing spots are closed in unpredictable ways.  The weather is liable to be cold and the pavements are liable to be crowded. Transport is uncertain.  The demands projected into one’s home life by the telephone or by email fall silent.  No.  Far better to stay snugly in doors and cultivate the soul by really getting to know some music that one would otherwise, year after year, merely possess.

This year, prompted by the BBC Radio 3 Bach Christmas I have been listening, over and over again, in among being ill, to Bach’s 48 Prelude’s and Fugues, otherwise known as the Well Tempered Clavier.

The thing that settled me on this particular overdose was writing a piece about Bach and God for Samizdata.  There is nothing like writing something to cause one immediately then to start wondering whether it was true, wise, profound, etc., or not, so Bach remained on my mind.  But Radio 3, with its self-imposed task of playing everything Bach ever composed, was serving up a deal too much singing for my taste.  I don’t mind the religion in Bach, despite what I may have implied (but actually did not say at all), in my Samizdata piece, but I do not care for the average classical music singing performance.  I like only a few baritones and tenors, and prefer light sopranos to the squally matrons who, too often for my taste, do the soprano – and especially contralto – singing.  So, I was set on listening to Bach, but needed to reach for CDs.

A notable - and notably controversial - CD issue this year has been the Daniel Barenboim (yes, him again) set of the Bach 48.  I enjoyed these greatly the first time around in the summer and autumn.  So, when choosing which CDs to take with me, together with my DAB radio/CD player, on my brief trip to my mum’s home for the actual few days of Christmas, I chose these Barenboim discs.  I also chose a few discs of Bach unaccompanied violin playing - Perlman’s complete set, and the equally excellent Hilary Hahn single Bach solo disc – but ended up not listening to these.  And by way of contrast to Barenboim, I chose the complete set of the 48 by Glenn Gould, which also became available this year in a super-bargain pack.

Now I am back in my own snuggery, and I am continuing to listen to the 48.  Right now, I have Edwin Fischer‘s much admired and pioneering set, made in 1934, on my CD player.  I have also, during the last two ill days, sampled some of the set done by Sviatoslav Richter, for me and for many others the king of all the pianists, which was issued some years ago by Olympia, and which I assume to be the same (July 1970, Salzburg) as this one.  Also on the menu will be a recently purchased Decca set of the 48 by Andras Schiff.  And since all of the above mentioned sets are played on the piano, I will also listen, I expect, to a harpsichord set, to see what kind of a difference that makes, probably the one by Kenneth Gilbert, but maybe Davitt Moroney.  Other pianists in the heap now include Tatiana Nikolayeva, Bernard Roberts, Friedrich Gulda and Jeno Jando.  For someone who doesn’t know this music, I sure own a lot of it, don’t I?  Weird, I know, but that’s how it is.  Like I say, purchasing CD bargains is a pleasure quite distinct from actually listening to them.

And I really do not know this music.  Hardly at all.

The most odd part of the experience of listening to this music is how completely new each piece sounds, in the various different hands of the different musicians involved.  A few notable tunes stand out in the memory and are recognisable, but again and again, I find myself listening to pieces which I have already heard five or six times in the last few days, yet as if listening to something entirely knew.

Partly this is because of my own failure to concentrate.  But I don’t think that this is entirely it.  I think it is also that there is so much in this music that it is simply impossible to take it all in, even in the sense of recognising it, all at one sitting.  To even listen to just one thread of melody, weaving in and out of all the other threads, requires a huge effort of concentration, and you can tell that if you do concentrate it will eventually all make perfect sense.  There is no sense of mere note spinning for the sake of it, of mere surface decoration.  And because there is so much going on in this music, it only needs a slightly different interpretation to the last one you heard for you to experience this latest melody as something entirely new.  Right now, for instance, Fischer is playing a tune that is quite unlike anything I have ever heard before, yet which is actually the same melody as one I have already heard Barenboim and Gould play within the last few days, in Barenboim’s case twice at least.

There is also the fact that each of these little pieces is a universe of delight in itself, and one tends to switch off – not exhausted exactly, more like just satisfied - after each one ends.  Recently BBC4 TV played the 48 Preludes and Fugues one Prelude and Fugue at a time.  There is a lot to be said for that way of listening to them, because that it how it often works out even when you are supposedly listening to lots of them at once.

When knowledgeable critics compare and contrast – CD Review style – this and that version of this or that piece, they already know the music thoroughly.  But there are important facts about particular pieces or sets of pieces of music that are also to be learned – which can only be learned - by people who are getting to grips with this music for the first time.  It is one thing to know, because one remembers, just how “difficult” this music is to comprehend.  (By which I do not mean unenjoyable.  The surface sound of this music is, to my ears, unfailingly beautiful.) It is quite another to experience this difficulty by experiencing how long it takes to learn even the basics of what the music consists of. 

Mahler symphonies or Beethoven piano sonatas are not like this.  With them you have a melody, and some harmonies, and there they are, each in their manageable little clumps, and very memorably so, even if some of the clumps last half and hour.  Okay, that doesn’t apply to some of the long Beethoven movements, but comparatively speaking I think the point still stands.  Each little Bach piece in the 48, in contrast, is like a symphony in itself.  Like a symphony, it covers a vast journey, compressing time as if by some Einsteinian magic trick, putting a girdle round the earth in four minutes.  An “event” in a piece of music is when an expectation is established, but then modified.  And it seems to me that in the piece that Fischer is now playing that happens about once every quarter of a second.  That’s a lot of events.

So I don’t think it’s just me and my lazy CD era listening habits.  I think this music is genuinely very hard to learn, even as a listener.  I can quite see why noted pianists wait decades before playing it in public, and further decades before recording it, and why many never venture outdoors with this music at all.  I used to think that was mere artistic preciousness.  Now I understand that attitude far better.  If you have to make an interpretative decision four times every second, and if the pieces as a whole last for about four or five hours, that’s a lot of interpretation to have to lay end to end.  I still think that a pianist would learn a lot by performing these pieces in front of an audience, however inadequate he felt that his performance was bound to be, because hearing how music works with an audience is a basic way of understanding its nature, I would say.  But that’s a different argument.

Wednesday December 28 2005

But, I did enough rootling around to find myself listening to this, an NBC Radio news report from December 25th 1944, which I recommend.  Found it here.

Count your blessings.

Yes.  A return of the flu that attacked in mid-November, and has never really gone away.  The Universe, I hate it.  And I am going to bed now.  I have to be well enough to host my last Last Friday, which is next Friday.  Perry de Havilland.  Should be a good one.

Divert yourself with the latest postings from friends of mine.  Patrick has more about his Japanese adventure.  Adriana has been in Bratislava, but has stayed connected.  I was away seeing my Mum, and had a good time, but was not connected.  But I suppose many might say that that is one of the ideas of things like Christmas.

Perry has been busy at Samizdata.  Mark Holland has a great vapour trail photo.  Jackie gives us sausages.

Natalie mentions me, and also picks up a Samizdata point about how, in the age of congestion charging, number plate stealing is suddenly a meaningful crime.  Meanwhile, Mr Natalie has been assembling beds.

Bloody hell.  It would have been easier to write something proper myself.  If you are (a) a friend of mine who (b) blogs, but (c) were not mentioned in this posting, don’t worry.  You’re still a friend.  I’m just a bit ill.

Monday December 26 2005

More results of my photo-searching through the hard disc.

Here is one of my all time favourite (of my own) photos, of the Millennium Bridge, the new footbridge which connects Tate Modern to (nearly) St Paul’s Cathedral.

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But here are three views which show a different and perhaps less known, because less photographed, aspect of this lovely new bridge.

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That’s right, the reason it doubles back like that is because, well, it doubles back.  Instead of flowing straight into Tate Modern in a straight line, it comes to an abrupt halt.  The result, I think, looks rather like the back end of a boat.

I do not object.  It is a beautiful creation.  Who cares if at first it wobbled?  Better a beautiful bridge with a wobbly start, then a bridge that is on time and on budget, but boring.

The aerial view is taken from the Tate Modern balcony, which, as you can see, is well worth a visit, whether you are Billion Monkey on not.

Sunday December 25 2005

Yes.  Hear’s wishing all my massed ranks of readers (as of now more 95,000 robots and people have visited this blog) . . .

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Click on that and you’ll see that I’ve used the help of these guys.  Christmas doesn’t yet seem to have been banned, does it?

Saturday December 24 2005

When is a photo a bad photo?  When it’s all blurry?

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Well maybe so, but I rather like that blur.  I’ve been rootling through my hard disc choosing pictures to print out for Christmas fun, and came across this squirrel cavorting about in St James’s Park.  Click to get it a bit bigger, but no less blurry.

Friday December 23 2005

I’ve just been half-watching a TV show about movies, and it seems that all five of the movies up for best movie in the Golden Globe Awards are, for the first time in . . . a long time, all five of them movies with budgets of less than $30 million.  Interesting.  Something is definitely happening to movie making.  You don’t have to regard these awards as exactly representative of public opinion to still be intrigued.  After all, in those previous years, they felt compelled to nod towards those mega-blockbusters.  Not any more, it would seem.

One thing that is happening is surely that we Baby Boomers are getting inexorably older, and now prefer clever little movies to big dumb ones. I was born in 1947, and that is certainly the way my tastes have been moving lately.

And another is that making - but particularly marketing - movies is getting cheaper to do.  In a world where the movies that the public reckons to be good will pretty much market themselves, via the internet, the logical thing to do is to make more and cheaper movies, now that the big, heavily advertised blockbusters are at less of an advantage than they used to be.

I am starting to hope that one day before I die, I may find myself being in a movie.  Not necessarily a very successful one.  But a cheap one, and hopefully an interesting one.

Anyone who can write an entertaining movie with lots of parts for wrinklies will be quids in.  A horror movie maybe, in which all the old people start behaving really strangely.  Which would be realistic.  A movie about generational warfare maybe, in which Youth rebels against having to look after the Wrinklies.  I think that’s what it should be called.  Wrinklies.

Friends and occasional bloggers Julian and Patrick both have recent new postings up.  Let’s hope Patrick has more to say about his trip to Japan, where he had his appendix out.

Not that I was worried. I was in far too much pain for that. Nor should I have been. Let’s face it, when it comes to slicing open bellies the Japanese are the universally-acknowledged experts.

But, if you now go looking for the Singleton Diet, which I wrote about admiringly here, you now only get this. As I recall the final, now inaccessible posting, Alex was (a) getting too much grief about it, and (b) he found it hard to keep writing about it.  Presumably he is still eating.

Ted Hoffman says that David Friedman (whom I have, like Ted Hoffman, long admired) has a new blog.  But it looks to me like it expired, after only a brief and sputtery life, in June 2003.

UPDATE: Alice Bachini (hello Alice!) comments (see comment) that David Friedman DOES have a new blog.  Explanation: I couldn’t make the link in Ted’s posting work, so I typed in www.davidfriedman.blogspot.com and got to the old one.  But the link to David Friedman’s blog in the blogroll at daviddfriedman etc., with another d in the middle, gets you to the new one.  (It took me a while to sort that out.  My first version of the problem was wrong.)

I’m glad I got that right (thanks Alice), because the old blog reads like test-run nonsense, whereas the real one looks pretty good.  So, it goes to my blogroll too.

Thursday December 22 2005

Today I had a strange experience.

I had placed in my jacket pocket four AA batteries, for use in my camera, should more batteries be needed.  And, I had placed in that same jacket pocket many coins.  These were the change from various transactions involving notes, and I had allowed a great many coins to accumulate.

The result was that everything had become extremely hot, as I discovered when seeking a few coins for a smaller purchase.

I guess that what had happened was that the coins had completed various circuits from one end of the batteries to other.  But I can’t be very sure.  It must have been something like that.  As soon as I discovered what had been happening, I put all the coins in my purse, and distributed all the other objects in the pocket in other pockets, and in my bag.

The batteries, deprived of the means of completing any circuits outside of themselves, are now cold again.  They are being replenished, and I anticipate that this may take some time.

Odd.  At Samizdata there is a category called “How very odd”.  Here I am content to use the “This and that” category.  But also, I think, “Technology”.

Wednesday December 21 2005

This

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… is now my must-photo car.  I didn’t take that photo, but I will have it.  I will.

UPDATE:  According to Samizdata commenters, too few of them are being made for me to be likely to spot one in London.  Oh well.

Tuesday December 20 2005

I can’t shovel my photos onto this blog every day.  So here is a gob of verbiage from another blog.  It is a report by Philip Stott of something he said on the radio.  It was last month, but it is the kind of stuff that will keep.

“Humans have always feared climate change and developed myths that our sinfulness is its cause. Accordingly, we always want to be able “to do something” about climate, to sacrifice to the Earth to bring about a golden age of climate stability. Unfortunately, both geology and history show us that the idea of a stable climate is untenable; there has never been, and never will be, a stable climate under human control. All we can do is adapt to constant change.

Our current obsession with the single factor of carbon dioxide emissions is little different. In a system as complex and chaotic as climate, actions with just one factor out of the thousands involved may even trigger unexpected consequences. It is vital to remember that, for such a coupled, non-linear, chaotic system, not doing something (i.e., not emitting gases) is as unpredictable as doing something (i.e., emitting gases). Even if we closed down every factory, crushed every car and aeroplane, turned off all energy production, and threw 4 billion people worldwide out of work, climate would still change, and often dramatically. Unfortunately, we would all be too poor to do anything about it.

Basing policies on worries about ‘global warming’ is a serious threat to us all, but especially to the 1.6 billion people in the less-developed world who have no access to any modern form of energy. The twin curses of water poverty and energy poverty remain the true scandals. By contrast, the political imposition on the rest of the world of our Northern, self-indulgent ecochondria about ‘global warming’ could prove to be a neo-colonialism too far.”

I am trying to wangle myself a paid writing gig on environmental issues.  I promise nothing, but if I succeed, Stott’s blog will, I anticipate, provide regular linkage.

Meanwhile my summary of the environmental debate consists of a succession of questions, with what are now my (tentative, reserve the right to change my mind, etc.) answers:

Is climate change happening?  Yes.

Is it being caused by human causes rather than natural causes?  Almost entirely– and quite possibly entirely – by natural causes.)

Whatever is the cause of climate change, is there anything humans can do to stop it?  No.

If I am wrong about the above, and if something can be done by humans to stop it, should it be done?  No.  Far too expensive for such a dubiously valuable outcome.

So what should humans do about all this?  They should get rich, so that they can better dodge the bad results of climate change – big, small or non-existent.  This plan has one big superiority over all other plans for dealing with climate change, which is that it is a really good idea anyway, whether climate change is doing or will do any huge damage or not.

Monday December 19 2005

Blatant quota photo.  Sorry and all that.  Click to get the bigger picture.

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I’d rather have been up there, photoing down.

Saturday December 17 2005

After our comedy fun (see below) on Thursday night, and having availed myself of some of the free drink, I made my way along Oxford Street to Oxford Circus tube and then home.

Having spent the previous few hours trying to take photos in a dimly lit pub, and being somewhat tipsy, and what with the marginal cost of digital photography being zero, I took photos, drawn to the lights above Oxford Street and in the shop windows like a moth to flame.  Finally, I can see stuff!  Snap, snap, snap.  Here are my favourites:

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1.1.  Most of the crap in those crap tourist crap shops is crap, but I still rather like these places.  You just know that they are a multinational mega-enterprise, with absolutely zero national loyalty to anywhere, which may be why I like them despite all their crap.  And a Princess Di plate and a Tube Map teapot are both objects slightly out of the ordinary in such a place, and Princess Di at least came out well enough.

1.2, another Billion Monkey creeping about, like me, as 1.3 shows.

1.4 is a fine example of a good picture that came out rather badly, but is good enough to enjoy anyway.  Maybe that’s good.  The point is not who the guy is, but how he and the two ladies are standing, all with their arms down in the same way.

1.3, 1.4, 2.1 and 2.2 (Yeah Baby!) are all tributes to the under-lauded art of shop-window-mannequinnery, to those who make them and to those who arrange them in the windows.  Nothing like a drink or two to bring these creatures to life.  I really like them, even when they have no heads, if only because they keep still.

2.3, of a real person this time, shows, I suspect, the continuing influence of that Claire Danes Romeo and Juliet costume.

I recall being most moved at the time by the traffic bollard in 2.4.  Treacherously stricken by one of the very motorists whom it was so devoted serving, yet still trying doggedly to do its duty.  An example to us all.

Just as well my camera has an anti-shake function.

Last night’s fun and games (see below) at the Wheatsheaf, Rathbone Place, went very well.  Today the congratulatory emails have been flying hither and thither.  Weren’t we wonderful?  Yes we were.  An audience showed up in just the right amounts.  It drank moderately, and gratefully.  We did our stuff.  The writers declared themselves very happy with our efforts, and everyone clapped enthusiastically. 

Okay it was friends and relatives.  This was not the real thing.  We were gambolling about in that strange and new in-between land that the internet and digital toys have created, between heaven and earth.  Sarah, for instance (you should hear her do Catherine Zeta Jones), already has a toe in heaven.  She is playing the lead in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in a production which has finished in its original venue, but which will be doing another fortnight run early next year in the studio at the Wimbledon Theatre.  On the other hand you have me, theatrical feet firmly embedded in the earth.  So, this was a very semi-pro evening, with not even a semi-pro audience watching it.  How we would have managed in front of ten times as many people, who had paid to get in, and who had paid for their drinks, I have no idea.

My photography got very patchy results.  The light in the place was mostly confined to splodges of it on the walls, so I applied some Photoshop beefing up to all of these snaps here, even though I don’t like that much.  Obviously I had other things on my mind until the show ended, but I got a few pictures worth showing you.  Others were photoing more conscientiously than I, most notably the star of the two classic Billion Monkey poses below, in pics 1 and 2, and who is also on the left in pic 6.  Mary McKenna, the Mistress of Ceremonies, features in pic 5, and in the middle in pic 6.  The bloke on his own in the corner with the dark hair, in pic 4, is the sound man.  Pics 3 and 6 feature some of the writers, pic 3 also showing what the audience looked like and how they were arranged.  Apologies, but apart from Mary McKenna, I still don’t know any more than the Christian names of the actors.  I will try to correct that Real Soon Now.  Still, at the end, Mary could not remember our surnames either.

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I had two surprises last night, both pleasant.

First, I was worried about my throat giving out.  I have had a moderately nasty cough for nearly the last month, and I feared that I would cough last night, in among saying my lines.  Not one.  No coughs at all.  Then as soon as it ended, I was back to coughing again.  Weird.  I’ve heard about “Doctor Theatre”, but this was the first time in my life I have experienced this benign force myself.

Second, I was struck by how much of a difference the audience added to the quality of some of our performances, not in the sense that these performances got any better (although on the whole they did) but in the sense that they made sense of them.  Two in particular of my fellow performers seemed to me to going way over the top in rehearsal, searching out meanings that weren’t there and projecting as if in a huge theatre, when they ought simply to have been saying the lines.  I had enough on my plate saying my own lines, so I kept my mouth shut about that, thank God.  Because, put an audience in front of these histrionics, and suddenly they didn’t seem so histrionic after all.  On the contrary, the audience loved them.  Shows you what I know.

Until last night I had decided not to bother thinking about writing any comedy sketches myself, but this morning I found myself pondering possible comic scenarios.  I promise nothing, of course.  My point is not that you should now await the arrival of the next Ben Elton.  I merely mention this to show you that I’m not just saying it; I really did think that last night went pretty well.

Thursday December 15 2005

Tonight, comedy.  Me and my mates doing comedy, that is to say.  So today, in addition to doing other vital stuff, for money, I will be fretting about that, and then doing that.

Meanwhile here is a quota photo, of another car headlight.  These things fascinate me just now.  I took this one while not noticing that there was a bloke sitting in the driver’s seat – behind dark glass in his Porsche 4 wheel drive.

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There are rules about these things.  You can photo an unoccupied car.  That’s fair.  But a car with a bloke in it is not quite the thing.

I apologised profusely, but he did not mind.  If anything he was rather smug about it.  “How about that?  I have photogenic headlights.  I am The Man.”

Wednesday December 14 2005

Valuation Officers to be exact, entering homes and taking photos with their newly acquired digital cameras.  If you fail to let them in, you are a criminal.  This either already is the position or it soon will be, according to The Englishman.

Who adds:

I plan to welcome the Snodgrass in with the invitation that we won’t mind him taking photos as long as he doesn’t mind us taking photos of him, …

The “…” bit being where he makes the intruder star in a dirty video, which I think takes the sting right out of his comment, by turning it into a mere joke.

I came across some Parking Fuzz carrying digital cameras, earlier this year, and photoed one of them.  They were uncomfortable, but grudgingly allowed it, although one of them hid her camera.

My best photo so far of officialdom in action is this.

Hear ye, hear ye.  Redundant Productions invites you (i.e. any of my London friends who are interested) to Christmas drinks with a bit of comedy, on Thursday 15th December 2005, upstairs at the Wheatsheaf, 15 Rathbone Place, London, W1T 1JB.

Free bar opens at 6.30pm, comedy sketches ‘n stuff from 7.30ish.

Yes you read that right.  Free bar.  And original sketches, specially written.  The writers will be there, so you can tell them what you think about it all afterwards.

I am one of the performers in the comedy sketches, which is a new thing for me.  Here are some rehearsal photos I took last night.

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I took a lot of photos, which is the secret for getting any nice ones when you are indoors.  The light was patchy, and note that Micklethwait’s Law of Perfectly Focussed Inanimate Objects When You Are Trying To Photograph People struck, as it always does strike.  I also took a wonderfully artistic shot of a glass of water, perfectly lit of course.

There are seven of us.  The six performers are (half way down on the right) David (the man in the trainers and novelty socks), Justin, me, Elena, Sarah and Emma.  The boss of the enterprise, Mary, is on the right on the sofa, middle left hand picture.  Wish us luck if you can’t be there.

Monday December 12 2005

I wish I could say I took this, which is the most dramatic picture of The Blast that I have yet seen:

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But actually it was one of the ones I found here.

The greenies are going to use these pictures for ever to tell us how sinful we all are.

Sunday December 11 2005

Like Alan Little, I regularly read Doug Sandow.  In a recent posting, Sandow simply asked: Do orchestras play well enough?

Orchestral musicians are playing music that we think is great art. Do they approach it that way? Do they say to themselves, “I’m going to play this Mahler symphony so vividly that nobody can ignore how profound it is”?

When people scatter questions marks about like that, you just know that their answer is going to be: no.

image Last night I watched and listened to and marvelled at a recently acquired DVD of Claudio Abbado conducting, in August 2003, his handpicked and specially assembled Lucerne Festival Orchestra in a performance of, yes, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection Symphony, a piece I have always been lucky with, and you couldn’t hope to witness a more telling example of a group of musicians playing as if their lives depended on it and having the time of their lives.  Joy and professional pride just oozed out of them, all of them.  At one point, just as a for instance, Abbado and the first trumpet, trumpet on lap, were quite clearly sharing a little joke about something or other, even as Abbado was conducting everyone else a hundred per cent.  A little mistake the trumpeter had just made, perhaps?  I doubt it very much, but it was definitely something.  That both these super-musicians had mental energy to spare for such merriment (which was of course entirely in keeping with the spirit of the music being played at that moment – maybe they were just enjoying that particular bit) demonstrated both the total mastery of the task in hand being displayed by all concerned, and the sense of mutual respect – love is not too strong a word – being shared by them.  At the end, they were hugging each other.  You don’t often see that.  Not from an orchestra.

But it would be asking a lot of orchestral musicians to put as much of themselves into every performance as these brilliant musicians put into this one.

The problem about classical music’s great symphonic set pieces is that when they were first performed, the occasion was just that, an occasion.  If it wasn’t an occasion, it was not for want of trying.  The sheer effort and expense involved was phenomenal, and the audience had to damn well listen because their chances of hearing such a performance again any time soon were slim to zero, in most cases.  At best, maybe two of three more times in their lives.  No CDs in those days!  And the big point is: the music is like this.  It is music for an occasion, a big occasion.

With much of contemporary pop music, there is an air of routine, and I don’t mean this as an insult.  I merely note that the musicians are tuning in to the atmosphere that they will mostly be heard in, if all goes well.  Because if all goes well, they will typically be performing their piece to a bunch of teenagers in a bedroom for the thirtieth time, or to clubbers or revellers who will likewise have heard it many times before and will have other things on their minds.  If the tune is one of their particular favourites, they can talk over it now, because if they want to they can always play it again, another thirty times.

Is this, I wonder, part of the explanation of the repetitiousness of pop drumming?  It imposes on the event an air of emotional detachment, of hey this is only pop music, an atmosphere which pop drummers in particular are almost defined by, with that did-I-remember-to-let-the-cat-out? look that they make a point of adopting no matter how much tumult they are unleashing.  Take it or leave it.  It’s only rock and roll (or whatever).  Pop is, in the end, only a service industry, like gas or electricity or an internet connection, which you can switch on and off at will.

Back in the days when classical music performed a similar service for the aristocracy to the one that pop music now performs for us all, it too was rhythmically repetitious and routine in the same kind of way.  And because it was played by a reasonably small bunch of hired helpers, any track that appealed could likewise then be repeated at will.

But when classical music was in its pomp, in the nineteenth century – in the time of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, basically from Beethoven to when sound recording got seriously going – the grandest and greatest of it wasn’t like that at all.

This Lucerne Festival Mahler performance really was one hell of an occasion, if only because Abbado was, then as now, quite old and medically no longer to be completely depended upon.  Any given performance by him could, then as now, be his last.  And as far as the classical musicians of middle Europe are concerned, Abbado is It.  Not Rattle.  Not Barenboim.  Abbado.  Classical music conducting is rather like the Papacy, and at any one time there is either a Pope, or a big ongoing conclave to decide who the Pope is.  And just now, the Pope is Abbado. There was nowhere else on earth that these musicians would rather have been, and nothing else in the world they would rather have been doing.  So for them to have played as if their lives depended on it was not hard.  This kind of performance, simply, is what their lives are all about.  No “as if” was really needed.

Compare that with a performance of one of these great symphonies of the more routine sort, played by good musicians who constantly play with one another, conducted by a good conductor who constantly conducts them.  You get, constantly, this horrible mismatch, between the unique once-in-a-lifetime feeling of the music as written, and the extreme non-uniqueness of the occasion at which it is now liable merely to be played through.

This is a problem that must afflict all performers, especially those who do multiple performances of the same thing.  You are doing this damn show every bloody night for three months, and somehow you have to make it sound like a special occasion, because for your audience, potentially, that is just what it is.

But, it must be hard.  I can’t find it in me to be surprised that often, performers can’t bring it off.

Saturday December 10 2005

Samizdata now sports a clutch of fun tourist photos of Istambul done by occasional Billion Monkey Perry de Havilland.  Most are regular enough stuff, but this one, I think, is a bit special:

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I find myself asking of my photos, how many good things do they have?  This has three.  First, the interesting fishing rods.  Second, the great but regular tourist type skyline, not enough to carry a picture on its own but a good background.  Three, good composition, or so I think.

See also this blog, subtitled “Digital Art Photography for Dummies”, which could hardly be clearer.  See in particular this posting, with a great picture, further illustrating how nice it can be when the light is behind what you are photoing, and also illustrating how effective big signs can be in photos.  Thanks to Adriana, who is into mobile phone photography, for the link.  Mobile phone cameras are not quite technically nice enough for my taste, yet, but they will probably soon swallow up cheap digital cameras completely.

Update: !!!!

Friday December 09 2005

Excellent song by Frank Skinner on the telly last night, with lyrics that deserve to last for ever, sung in a slow and deeply meaningful Bob Dylan voice:

Gay marriage
Gay marriage
Gay marriage
Ooooh!

Gay marriage
Gay marriage
Gay marriage
Ooooh!

Gay marriage
Gay marriage
Gay marriage
Ooooh!

Sing along with me

And they did.  This is the best example I have yet encountered of everyone saying the same words, but each meaning something subtly different by it.  See also: democracy, common sense, back to basics, etc.

Photoed after dark in London a couple of days ago, in the window of a Chinese ornaments/collectibles/figurines:shop, full of animals, Buddhas, etc., in Soho:

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It looks to me as if it might be Indian.  And judging by the smug expression on mum’s face, I’m guessing the little fellow could be Buddha himself.  But corrections would be welcome.

Billion Monkey action indoors, or outdoors but outside the hours of daylight, is difficult, but it can sometimes work, when there is deliberately bright light involved.  Take lots of pictures, is the secret.  Also, statues are good, because statues don’t move about.

Even though I agree with what Perry de Havilland said, I also rather agree with this:

The Samizdata quote of the day, though a reasonable few lines, is a quote from one of the members of Samizdata, possibly even coined during one of his Samizdata posts or comments. Perhaps we can look forward to Samizdata sweeping the board in the next ‘Samizdata blog of the year’ awards.

I promised a while ago to put these guys on my blogroll, for whatever that may be worth.  Actually of course, this is for my own convenience.  Anyway, they are there now.  Prompted, if I recall it right, by a comment by one of them, on something or other here.

They evidently care what I think.

Thursday December 08 2005

Quote of the day, from some lunatic commenting on this:

We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the cars.

Once you tune it to DMCs, you see them everywhere.

I do not drive, but I do indeed enjoy looking at the cars.

Let’s find another car picture.  What do you make of this?  Click to get the bigger picture.

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I remember when the newest ones would look like this.

Wednesday December 07 2005

Yesterday I was out and about, seeking cheap classical CDs, which are getting cheaper all the time.  You can get really good ones now in London for less than a single tube ticket.  So there I was, just past Waterloo Station, just beyond the Wheel, and as usual I noticed how cute the views can look when the Wheel rises up in the background (1.1, 1.3).  Straight views of the Wheel and nothing else are everywhere, but there are still views of it to be snapped and pondered when combined with other things, like trees or signals, or, a favourite with me, cranes.

I haven’t changed any of the lighting from what came out of the camera.  I did (or rather didn’t) do that so that the extraordinary variety of lightness and darkness that Billion Monkey cameras (2.3 – couldn’t resist) take it upon themselves to show, depending on how dark or light the view is generally.  Point at something mostly dark, and the sky turns pure white (1.2).  But point at the right bit of the sky, and a Billion Monkey will turn a drab bit of cloud into something more like the Northern Lights (1.4).

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That tower at the back in 1.2 is becoming one of my favourite buildings in London just now.  Amazing what a bit of tarting up can do to a dull old tower block.  It doesn’t scrape the sky, but it does gesture in its general direction most gracefully.

1.3 is looking out of Waterloo Station, at the northern end, where the Eurotrains arrive and depart.  The trees, with the lights on them waiting to go into action, at next the Royal Festival Hall, now in the throws of being redone, and hopefully turned into a place where classical music may be listened to properly, and which proper orchestras will be glad to visit.

The bright light with the metal rods emating (2.3) is at the top of one of the spikes on one of the Hungerford Bridge footbridges.  Behind the Billion Monkey guys (2.3) you see the drab old Hungerford Bridge for the trains which the footbridges have so lived up.

2.4 is in Leicester Square.  It was dark by then, but not that dark.  The lights only made it look totally dark.  I took the shot because some of the lights, on the aerial pizza thingy, were in motion, and I was hoping for a pleasing blurry effect, and pretty much got it.

Tuesday December 06 2005

The English language is very strange.  Winger is pronounced winger.  Yet the addition of an h after the w suddenly brings the g alive.  It’s all perfectly logical, once you realise that the bases of winger and whinger are wing and whinge.  But I do pity the poor bloody foreigners sometimes.

Nevertheless, they are determined to speak English.  In India, it would seem, they soon all will.  Turban tip from Albion’s Seedling.  Yes I do like a good DMC.

The spread of English in India was one of the big stories I picked up via education blogging, which I intend to resume Real Soon Now, by the way.  Basically, Indians want English as what Jim Bennett (see his various fascinating comments on the Albion’s Seedling post linked to above) calls an LWC (language of wider communication) and as a means of accessing the bits of the Indian economy that work best.  And now that cheap and cheerful free market education in India is catching on big time, what Indians want Indians are now starting to get.

Monday December 05 2005

A friend of mine from my youth called Paul (we lived at 71 - his family lived at 76) used to express amusement by saying “Arf arf”.  Arf arf was what people sometimes used to say in comics of those days, when they were amused.  People like the Bash Street Kids, if I remember rightly.  Or was it Desperate Dan?

Well:  Arf arf.

Today I had lunch with friends at the 606 Club, while listening, or more accurately being deafened by, a band fronted by a trio of gospel singers.

The singing was excellent, for a football stadium, or even a large church.  Sadly, the 606 Club is a small basement and is about the size of one floor of a suburban house.  Two ladies and a gentleman bellowed frenziedly into microphones, accompanied by a clutch of men at keyboards, guitars and drums.  Had I been on my own I would have scuttled away within five minutes.  But you can’t just run away from a group of friends without some kind of explanation. I’ve got to go, it’s too loud.  What?  Too loud.  Can’t hear you.  It’s too loud!!  Etc.  This will soon end, I kept saying to myself, and alas I kept being wrong.

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The songs were of the Jesus Will Save You, The Lord Loves You variety.  Many seemed like nice tunes, and I wouldn’t have kicked them out of my stereo.  But, they were too damn loud for my classically reared ears.

From time to time, the lady singers would speak, in ways that the many people present who were enjoying themselves really enjoyed.  Quite a lot of what they said concerned the fact, which it undoubtedly is, that life can be full of unpleasant experiences, but that you just have to hope that eventually these experiences will come to an end, and then life will get back to being nice. You’re telling me lady.  I sat there bootfaced, or head in hands, occasionally tapping along, at the end clapping politely, dreaming of Menuhin conducting Beethoven symphonies in my nice quiet kitchen, with its nice controllable volume control.

When the bellowing was particularly bellowsome, I held my fingers over my ears and made up song titles.  When Jesus Shouts.  My Ears Are Bleeding Lord.  Turn It Down Turn It Down.  When Microphone Feedback Came Among Us.  And I took photographs.  That’s not a song title, I took photographs.  (And I wasn’t the only one, by the way, since you were probably thinking I was and oh dear how annoying.)

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Those two singers are Simon King and Michelle John Robinson.  Tracey Campbell was the other, but she seldom allowed herself to be properly lit, and I never got an even half decent shot of her.

As I get older, I become less and less willing to have experiences which are merely different, such as the above definitely was.  Why is this?  Is it because the old brain is simply less open to new experiences?  Are old people inherently boring and unadventurous, because of the nature of their decaying brains and bodies?  Maybe that is part of it.  But I think that time has a lot to do with it.  When you are young, you have a few ideas about how to spend your time, and infinite time to spend.  So, you can afford to take risks with your time, because even unpleasant experiences may lead to good things.  When you reach the mid-life crisis, which I am now way past, the equation reverses itself.  You now have only so much time, and have meanwhile accumulated a great many ideas, many of them excellent, about how to spend it.  This being the case, being bellowed at for two hours by people who either are religious maniacs or who are doing a terrifyingly good impersonation of religious maniacs (or whatever might for you be an equivalent experience - perhaps being lectured in a quiet and logical voice by an atheist), is not something you want to do.

I am open to new experiences.  Look at how keen I am on blogging, of which I knew nothing five years ago.  But I now only welcome new experiences which are truly welcome.  Unwelcome ones which pass the time must now be avoided.  Note to self.  When invited to an event, remember to ask: will anyone be singing into a microphone?  If yes, then no.

PS: If I am right about why older people aren’t so adventurous, then maybe we should all be rather less nervous about the consequences of life extension than many of us are.  The big fear is that life extension would fill the world with old people.  But it wouldn’t.  It would merely change the definition of old, and would transform the way that people aged, say, fifty, would then behave.  If I knew I was going to live to two hundred, I would now be a far more adventurous soul than I am, because I would know that I had far more time ahead of me to explore new things, while still fitting in all the things I already want to do.

Come to think of it, maybe a planet full of adventurous hundred year olds would be far worse than the one we already have, fuller and fuller every day of unadventurous hundred year olds.  Now I am really depressed. At least blogging keeps oldies indoors and ignorable.

Sunday December 04 2005

Okay usually when I fob you insatiable idiots off with a quota photo, it’s one of mine.  But this time, I’ve picked one from One Man & His Blog which I find strangely appealing.

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Did One Man &/or His Blog crop it to say that, on the left, losing just the S?  Or, as I like to think, did the camera phone do it in the original?  The antlered lady looks like that American woman comedian who mysteriously used to inhabit our tellywaves.  Name please.  No need.  Got her.  Ruby Wax.  But thinner.  I also like kid in the foreground.

Saturday December 03 2005

Yes there’s nothing like a deftly modified cliché to liven up an otherwise fairly routine piece of writing:

8. I should find a cleverer way of helping her without asking if she needs it . . . like waxing the floors, cleaning the house, vacuuming, buying flowers, getting a couple jobs to get off her nerves.

That was in one of those beat-yourself-up lists that the blogosphere presumably features several times per second.

Obvious when you think about it, but I have never heard the expression “get off” someone’s nerves.  Cute.  This is Maia the Teenage Americaness, who can, as I have several times said, write.  Here she said don’t read the previous two posts, so of course I immediately did.

Glad to see that the acute e in the title seems to have registered.  Hope it has at your end too.

Okay here’s a real posting.  Silly but real.

I have blundered into a new art form.  I’m sure others have also, without me realising, but now I have, and I’ve realised.

It consists of taking photos of the TV.  No doubt this is illegal, so if all my pictures of the telly disappear, that will be because someone has sent me a letter.  Or else the entire blog has disappeared again.

I have been doing telly pictures like this for some time, but have tended to reject the weird ones.  But now I thinking that the weird ones are often the best.

image

See what I mean.  Great interference patterns and a splendid effect caused by fading between different shots.

This was taken during a recent showing of the video for the latest Rolling Stones pop tune.  The usual middle class fantasy squalour.  It’s decades since they ever lived like that for real.

Click to make the great Keith Richards even greater.

Friday December 02 2005

For complicated reasons involving the update, you cannot now comment on this blog.  Sorry if you have tried.  That little bit where it says something like “bollock92” and you have to write in “bollock92” can no longer by put there, because of something my hosts did, or failed to do.  And Expression Engine demands this procedure, not unreasonably.  Steps are being taken to rectify all this.  Sensei Mark has his own hosting service, and I will be switching to this Real Soon Now, i.e. as soon as Sensei Mark can fit that into his busy schedule.

I promise to put up a real posting Real Soon Now, i.e. as soon as I can fit that into my busy schedule, and not just rubbish about this blog and its technological navel.

Thursday December 01 2005

This is actually quite funny.

Apparently my hosting service upgraded their “PHP” (which sounds like a newly synthesised drug to me, but apparently it is something computational), at which point Sensei Mark was just about to upload or download or whatever the latest version of the software I use for this blog.  But then, presumably in response to horrified squawks from people like me everywhere, my hosters retreated.  Which is why my blog worked again.  Sensei Mark therefore did nothing, on the grounds that if it is not necessary to do anything it is necessary not to do anything.  But now the hosters have updated their PHP, again, so Sensei Mark must now, for real, update my software.  Wish him, and me, luck.

Also funny is that although I can post this, you can’t read this until Sensei Mark has finished.  The internet eh?  A laugh a day.

I could have sprinkled links in among these last two postings, but my blog is down and I can’t get to all my regular links the way I am now habituated to.

Bugger.  More technical problems, along the lines of those that afflicted me last week.  And I am posting this is the same hopeful spirit that I posting that “Testing” posting.  Tomorrow, call Mark Rousell.